Google Glass: there'll be tears before bedtime

Bettings on the first lawsuit?

Mmm, in two minds, or should that be having double vision over Google Glass.

Can’t be the only one still wary of people approaching one on Westminster Bridge waving their arms like an Italian chef and talking animatedly, seemingly to themselves. Are they hands-free on their phone talking to a chum in Kilmarnock, or a recent escapee from a facility who might toss one summarily over the parapet merely for looking at them awry? And now people will be issuing instructions to their glasses, or rather the embedded computer screen in their specs’ interactive Google Glass, something recent facility escapees likely do anyway, possibly imagining they already have a computer screen there. How much more wary will that make you feel as you’re crossing a bridge alone at dusk, or standing too close to the crowded Underground platform edge?

At the same time, trying to navigate the side streets with the map app on the phone, or sat nav, can be a literal pain in the neck. So I can see the advantages and convenience of being able to see your directions on your specs.

I’m also of the generation where wearing glasses as a kid, especially if pink plastic NHS-issue with the obligatory sticking plaster holding together the broken bridge, labelled you four eyes, specstic, Joe 90, Piggy (see Lord of the Flies) or, for some reason the one I found least offensive, Milky Bar Kid.  But now the bespectacled boot will be on the other foot and the Google Glass generation presumably won’t be seen dead without their intelligent face furniture. And, as they’re already used to donning specs, not to mention finding them first thing in the morning crushed under the pillow or suspended from the toothbrush stand, existing glasses wearers will also be the most successful early adopters of the new technology. Finally, we’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to look down our noses through our Google Glass at the uninitiated as their heads swim trying to focus going down the stairs.

So far, according to Google’s YouTube vid, besides using them as a heads up walking or driving sat nav, you’ll be able to  take pictures  or video with your Google Glass glasses – generally, it seems according to the film, while , stunt flying, skiing or roller coastering – or you can browse the web or skype.  All you have to do is say “OK glass, take a picture” etc.  You can see how that is going to make you appear one anchovy short of a pizza.

And you’ll probably be able to do more besides following Google Glass glasses experiments with real users – as opposed to Google people, including Sergey Brin himself, who was recently spotted putting a pair through their navigation technology paces on the New York subway. Had he even thought of consulting the map?

The company is currently looking for 8000 “bold, creative individuals” in the US to field-test them (for which privilege they will have to pay $1500 to buy their own). As part of the deal they have to say how they’d use them in their 50-word application for the trial and are being invited to come back later with other ideas and “be part of shaping the future of Glass” – there’s an ambition.

Google Glasses guinea pigs have to be 18,  pick up their specs in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and get their applications in by 02.59 am US Eastern Time (for some reason) on February 28.

As well as talking to your Google Glasses, it seems, you will be able to listen to them through your skull. A patent filing to the Federal Communications Commission included a system for playing sound via a “bone-conduction” device rather than earphones or plugs (buds to our US readers).

So when will Google Glasses be on general release and all of us trying to look at at least two things at once?  There seems to be no definite date yet, but it will likely be sooner rather than later given that others are snapping at Google’s smart specs heels. Motorola is on the case with a more technical “headset computer system” for professional users like engineers and emergency services, while Oakley has Airwave ski goggles with a heads up display giving the wearer’s speed and telling them what music they’re listening too in cases where they’ve taken a tumble, bumped their heads and forgotten. 

Other companies offered up prototypes of similar devices at the last Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in LA.  Among them were Vuzix, with its Android-driven M100 smartphone specs including computer screen and video.

Also driving the market are forecasts that annual international  “wearable mobile” sales could be worth over $1.5 bn as soon as 2014.

However, you do also wonder how soon after these things become de rigeur for the wired that the first lawsuit will be lodged against Google and/or Apple by someone who walks under the bus or taxi they neither saw nor heard due to videoing and following directions on their glasses, while listening to AC/DC or talking to someone on their iPhone.

As a further caution before the big launch, Google could also do worse than watch that Steve Martin comedy film classic The Jerk.  Here the humble gas pump attendant Navin R Johnson (Martin) helps out a customer with loose specs by welding a small wire prop-cum-handle to the bridge. This becomes the patented Optigrab and makes Johnson a fortune, but then ruins him when it renders wearers cross-eyed and they launch a class action. He’s left with just a remote control, a thermos and a paddleball. Even his dog Shithead deserts him.

Mr Brin, you have been warned. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide